After a 4-9 start last season, the Blazers won nine of their next 11 games then lost four of their last seven. A three-game winning streak in the Conference USA tournament propelled the Blazers to the conference championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. They knocked off No. 3-seeded Iowa State, 60-59, capping a great week and a 20-16 season.
Blazers coach Jerod Haase, whose team opens Friday night at Auburn, wants his team to sustain a winning effort for an entire season.
"I don't believe I would label it as a great season, but we had a fantastic end to it," he said during the team's media day last month. "That is a rallying cry for us moving forward into this season. We want to have consistency with our preparation. Hopefully that will lead to consistency of positive results as well. I think it can because we have a lot of good pieces in place.
"The guys are bigger, faster and stronger, and have a better understanding of that what the college game is as well. There is a lot of optimism and excitement around the program."
UAB was selected C-USA's preseason favorite followed by Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee. The Monarchs, who have the seventh-longest home winning streak in the nation, won 27 games last season in a run to the NIT semifinals.
With that, here are five things to watch this season in Conference USA:
C-USA welcomes two new coaches. Former All-American Mark Price takes the reigns at Charlotte, after spending seven years as an assistant coach in the NBA. Eric Konkol tips off his first season at Louisiana Tech after working the past four years as an assistant coach for Jim Larranaga at Miami (Fla.). He replaces Michael White, the C-USA Coach of the Year, who is now the head coach at Florida.
Mark Adams’ take: Mark Price is the best guard on Charlotte’s roster and while Price was a great player and one of the best NBA shooters ever, he is out of eligibility. Price must replace Charlotte’s top four scorers. ... Rice, last seen in the NCAA Tournament in 1970, has a chance to be a challenger if these four get help from newcomers. ... Western Kentucky's Aaron Cosby, a graduate transfer from Illinois, averaged 7.8 points and 3.6 assists for the Illini before an injury sidelined him the rest of his season.
Preseason conference favorite UAB returns 91% of its scoring and 90% of its rebounding from last year’s team that advanced in the NCAA Tournament with a victory against No. 3-seed and Big 12 champion Iowa State. ... Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion are riding two of the nation’s longest home-court win streaks. The Bulldogs have won 30 in a row, dating to the 2013-14 season, fourth-best in the country behind Arizona, North Carolina Central and Wichita State. ODU has won its last 24 games at the Ted Constant Center, one game behind Kansas and North Dakota State, for the seventh-longest streak. ... Kermit Davis, the winningest coach in MTSU history, is back for his 14th season.
Mark Adams’ take: UAB is the team to beat in C-USA. Jerrod Haase has made UAB relevant on a national level with the NCAA Tournament win over Iowa State and more is expected as this team basically remains intact. UAB is capable of a deep NCAA run and makes C-USA a legitimate candidate to be a multi-bid conference. ODU is the logical choice.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
UAB's Robert Brown earned C-USA Tournament MVP honors, averaging 15 points in three games. Overall, Brown led UAB in scoring 20 times in 36 games last season, including 23 ppg in two NCAA Tournament games. ... Old Dominion's Trey Freeman, the C-USA Newcomer of the Year and first-team all-conference, averaged 16.9 ppg. He is the league's top returning scorer (16.9 ppg), and led ODU in assists (125) and steals (46). His 30-footer to beat Murray State at the buzzer sent the Monarchs to New York for the NIT semifinals. ... MTSU junior forward Reggie Upshaw Jr. led the team in scoring (9.9 ppg), rebounding (7.0 rpg) and blocked shots (35).
Mark Adams’ take: Trey Freeman has become a legend at ODU and we all get to see this 6-2 senior guard for one more season. ... With Upshaw and point guard, Giddy Potts, watch out for MTSU as the season progresses. They combine depth and athleticis, and will challenge UAB and all comers. ...
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Senior forward Earvin Morris is UTEP's top returning scorer, averaging 11 points in just over 23 minutes per game last season. He made 13 starts, but in his 20 games off the bench, Morris tallied double figures in 11 contests and scored a total of 197 points. ... Louisiana Tech senior guard Alex Hamilton averaged 14.7 ppg, which included five games with 27 points or more. Teammate Erik McCree, a redshirt junior forward, averaged 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds last season. ... Rice junior guard Marcus Jackson averaged 14.5 ppg as the Owls' top returning scorer, and also ranked among the top 15 in C-USA for free throw percentage (.831, third), 3-point percentage (.397, ninth), scoring (12th) and assists (2.7 apg, 14th). ... Marshall's Ryan Taylor led the league with 14 double-doubles, including a streak of seven in a row. He was the Herd's leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (8.6 rpg). ... FIU senior forward Adrian Diaz ranked sixth in the NCAA with 99 blocks last season, earning him a spot on the C-USA All-Defensive Team. He also became the first Panthers player to post a triple-double, following a 14-point, 12-rebound, 13-block performance in a win over UAB.
Mark Adams’ take: I love great names and Andrew Drone, Rice's 6-10 center is now on my all-name team in C-USA. ... Rice's Max Guercy is one of my favorite players in C-USA as a 5-9 point guard. He averaged 9.8 ppg while ranking third in Conference USA with 4.5APG. He also led C-USA in free throws (86.4%). ... UAB's Chris Cokley is the reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year (7.9 ppg, 45.7% on 3-pointers). ... Charlotte's Braxton Ogbueze shot 40.9% from behind the 3-point arc. ... LeAntwan Luckett, a three-time All-SWAC first-teamer, could be a key in filling gaps in his first and only season at Louisiana Tech.
GAMES TO WATCH
On Feb. 6 against Western Kentucky, UTEP will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its 1965-66 NCAA championship when the school was known as Texas Western College. The Miners upset top-ranked Kentucky, 72-65, as the first team to start five black players in the title game. UTEP remains the only Division I school in Texas to win a national championship in men’s basketball. ... ASN will televise 65 C-USA men’s games and 15 women's games this season, tipping off Friday with Elon at Charlotte at 8:30 p.m. ET. Of the 65 men's games on ASN, 43 will be conference matchups, including the first three rounds of the tournament that begins on March 8 in Birmingham.
Mark Adams’ take: It’s basketball season!
More: C-USA games on ASN
Vote: Who is your choice to win Conference USA?
Above: Robert Brown celebrates UAB's 60-59 victory against Iowa State in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)